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Handling Specific Disruptive Behaviors

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

No matter how much an offensive student tries to bait you, you lose credibility if you lower yourself to his level.


The following excerpt gives some suggestions on how to handle

disruptive behaviors in class. It is from, TEACHING AT ITS BEST A

Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, byLINDA B. NILSON,

Vanderbilt University

Anker Publishing Company, Inc. Bolton, MA. Copyright (c) 1998 by

Vanderbilt University. All rights reserved. Reprinted with



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Invisible Internet

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


-------------------- 986 words ------------------



pp 46-48


If you encounter a discipline problem in your classroom, the first thing

to do is to stay calm. Count to ten, breathe deeply, visualize a

peaceful scene, anything to keep you from losing your temper. No matter

how much an offensive student tries to bait you, you lose credibility if

you lower yourself to his level. If you keep your composure, you win

the sympathy and support of the other students. They may even start

using social pressure to discipline the offenders themselves.

Keeping your composure, however, does not mean just accepting and

tolerating the abuse. There are some specific, appropriate measures you

can take in response to disruptive behaviors (Nilson, 1981; Ballantine

and Risacher, 19993).

TAKING IN CLASS. Occasional comments or questions from one student to

another are to be expected. However, chronic talkers bother other

students and interfere with your train of thought. To stop them, try a

long, dramatic pause. Then, if necessary, accompany your pause with an

equally dramatic stare at the offenders. If still necessary, say

something general like "I really think you should pay attention to this;

it will be on the test" or "You are disturbing your classmates." If the

problem persists, get stern with the offenders outside the class.

Direct intervention and public embarrassment are strictly last resorts.

PACKING UP EARLY. Routinely reserve some important points or classroom

activities (e.g., quizzes, writing exercises, clarification of the

upcoming readings, study guide distribution) until the end of class. Or

have students turn in assignments at the end of class. Paper-rustling

and other disruptive noise-making during class can be stopped the same

way as is talking in class.

ARRIVING LATE AND/OR LEAVING EARLY. State your policies clearly on

these offenses in your syllabus and on the first day of class. You can

insist that students inform you, preferably in advance, of any special

circumstances that will require them to be late to class. You can even

subtract course points for coming late and leaving early, as long as you

set this policy at the start. You might draw attention to offenders by

pausing as they walk in and out. Alternatively, you can set aside an

area near the door for latecomers and early leavers. Finally, as you

can do to discourage packing up early, you can routinely conduct

important class activities for the beginning and the end of class.

CHEATING. Academic dishonesty is such a serious and widespread problem

in higher education today that the entire next chapter is devoted to

preventing it.

WASTING TIME. If students habitually try to monopolize class time,

encourage them to speak with you after class to clarify their questions.

You can broaden the discussion and call attention away from the

disruptive student by asking the rest of the class for the answers.

Another strategy is to put out a question box. You can read the

questions after class and briefly address some of them at the next

meeting. You can also encourage students to e-mail their questions to

you or to put them on the course listserv or newsgroup. While less

personal, these options offer a less confrontational format.

ASKING PROBLEMATIC QUESTIONS. These include a wide variety of

questions: those that you've already answered, those that try to wheedle

answers out of you that you want the students to arrive at on their own,

those that ramble on and on, those that you regard as argumentative,

loaded, or hostile, and those you don't have the information to answer.

Constructive ways to respond to such questions, whether or not they are

ill intended, are covered in Chapter 16.

SHOWING DISRESPECT. Once again, make your expectations for appropriate

classroom manners clear from the start, and reinforce them continually

by your exemplary behavior. Enlist the aid of other students to monitor

and report disruptive incidents. Talk to offenders privately and

explain that their behavior is affecting their fellow students' ability

to learn.

Sometimes students show disrespect to get the attention they believe

they cannot get through any other means, to vent their anger towards

authority in general, or to express some other deep-seated emotional

problem. Leave such cases to the professionals and refer such students

to your institution's psychological or counseling center.

ATTENDING CLASS IRREGULARLY. In general, attendance drops off as class

size increases. It is also lower in more lecture-oriented classes. So

one obvious way to increase attendance is to build in more opportunities

for student participation. Taking some of the following measures in

combination should also help: basing part of the course grade on

attendance; taking attendance regularly (even if you don't calculate it

in the grade); basing part of the course grade on participation in

discussion (see Chapter 15); giving frequent, graded quizzes; covering

different material in class from that in the readings; not allowing

commercial production of your lecture notes; conducting cooperative

learning group activities in class and grading students in part on peer

performance evaluations (see Chapter 18); and conducting other frequent,

graded in-class activities (see, for example, Chapters 17, 19, and 20).


syllabus, specify penalties for late work, with or without an "approved"

extension (e.g., docking a portion of the grade). Some instructors feel

comfortable strictly enforcing this policy. But if you prefer to be

flexible, you probably realize that students occasionally have good

reasons for not meeting deadlines. But they also occasionally lie. You

must assess each extension request and excuse on a case-by-case,

student-by-student basis, perhaps allowing a single, documented incident

but drawing the line at the second.

A student with a habitual problem deserves a private talk along with the

full penalties as described. You might ask colleagues any chronic cases

among the majors in your department.

Your best strategy against all forms of disruptive behavior is

prevention. Be aware of potential problems, and plan carefully to keep

them from developing and to nip any stray weeds in the bud.